8 Limbs of the Ashtanga Path

8 limbs of the Ashtanga Path

The 8-fold path, Asthanga (from ashta– eight, and tanga – steps) is introduced in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras and discussed in greater detail in the 2ndand 3rdPada. Through the practice of the Ahstanga Path, the yogi not only overcomes all obstacles of spiritual growth , transcends suffering (the four kleshas), but also attains the ultimate goal of Yoga (citta vrtti nirodha (1.2)) and thus finds liberation and freedom, kaivalya.

 These eight limbs are now described in detail with the reference to the corresponding Sutras that describe each of the limbs further:

  1. YAMAS – Moral Injunctions

There are five Yamas, which are defined in Sutra 2.30.: “ahimsa satya asteya brahmacarya aparigrahah yamah” – Non-violence, truth, abstention from stealing, continence, and absence of greed for possession beyond one’s need are the five pillars of yoga.

  • Ahimsa– Non-violence; means to cause no harm in thought, word, or deed towards oneself and all other living beings. Sutra 2.35 states that “ahimsapratisthayam tatsannidhau vairatyagah” – When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.

This actually means that when one assumes and embodies an attitude of ahimsa, this peaceful state also affects everything around us and helps to promote ahimsa in everything that one comes in contact with. Ahimsa is also the highest dharma (individual and universal life’s purpose) as described in the Sanskrit epigram “Ahimsa paramo dharma”. This means that non-violence is the underlying, universal and fundamental law of the unity of life.

  • Satya – Truth; means to be truthful not only with others but also with oneself. If one is not capable of self-honesty, one is also not capable of honesty with others. Truth is to be reflected in thought, word and deed and ought to never harm others, and thus needs to be interwoven with Ahimsa. Sutra 2.36. states: “satyapratisthayam kriyaphalasrayatvam” – When the sadhaka (student) is firmly established in the practice of truth, his words become so potent that whatever he says comes to realization.

This means that those who genuinely strive to live according to their truth will build their lives on a foundation of authenticity and sincerity and those things that are in accordance with one’s truth will come into their lives.

  • Asteya– Non – Stealing; means to not take the property, possessions, seat, time, lime-light of another person. This also includes avoiding being envious or jealous of what someone else has and cheating others. Again this can be practiced in thought, word and deed. Sutra 2.37. states: “asteyapratisthayam sarvatanopasthanam” – When abstention from stealing is firmly established, precious jewels come.

This means that what is meant for us, will not go past us, as long as we do not take what is not meant for us. Asteya is also linked to the first two Yamas.

  • Brahmacharya– Continence; relates to the retention of vital energies by not overly indulging in those things that stimulate the senses. It does not mean to refrain from sexual conduct and other activities that bring pleasure altogether but rather to engage in them mindfully without being overstimulated. The reason for this is that over-indulgence drains the yogi of vitality and the energy needed to pursue one’s spiritual practice. Rather the vitality ought to be harnessed to raise the pranic energy. Sutra 2.38. states: “brahmacaryapratisthayam viryalabhah” – When the sadhaka is firmly established in continence, knowledge, vigor, valor and energy flow to him.
  • Aparigraha– Absence of greed; calls for moderation in all that we do and not acquiring, hording or desiring more than we really need. This again concerns our conduct in thought, word and deed, and relates to all areas of life, such as food, how we make a living, our strivings for reputation, a place in society and our material and emotional security. Those who are established in aparigraha will experience what the Sutra 2.39 describes “aparigrahasthairye janmakathamta sambodhah” – Knowledge of past and future lives unfolds when one is free from greed for possessions.

This means that when we surrender greed, we also surrender the fear of not having enough and thus live in the trust that at this very moment and in every moment to come we are always provided with what we need right now.

It might be important to note, that the five Yamas – non-violence, truth, non-stealing, continence, absence of greed – form a link and complement and support each other. It is not really possible to practice one without the other. While these ‘moral injunctions’ might remind of the ten comandments, one does not solely practice them to be a “good person”. If the aim of the yogi is to completely still the mind and surrender all that, which keeps the mind active, it is imperative to be firmly established in the practice of the Yamas, for violating them only provides more substance for the mind to “feed” on.

One might take a simple example, of telling just a tiny “white lie”. How much mental effort is involved in telling a simple lie? One has to remember first of all the lie they told and to whom they told it so they cannot be found out by telling a different version of the same story later on. Also, what if this person who received the lie speaks about it to someone else and comes back to the original story teller with more questions? The simple white lie now needs to be repeated and might start to travel further. It might involve other people and other events and all that needs to be remembered. And what was the reason for telling the lie in the first place? If there is a reason to hide something than the act that needs to be denied was not ethical or came from a place of integrity to begin with. So you see, one lie has a lot of consequences. Like dropping a tiny pebble into a lake that starts to draw wide circles, a tiny lie can have a ripple effect on other areas of our lives and genuinely disturb the mind. Now, try to sit down and meditate with a mind that is full of these disturbances. You might find that this is very difficult. This example of course applies to the other four Yamas as well and thus, the foundation of our spiritual journey requires the observance of the Yamas, which also go hand in hand with the second limb, Niyama.

2) NIYAMAS– Fixed Observances

There are five Niyamas which are defined in Sutra 2.32:

  • Sutra 2.32. “sauca santosa tapah svadhyaya Isvarapranidhanani niyamah”– Cleanliness, contentment, religious zeal, self-study and surrender of the self to the supreme Self or God are the niyamas
    • Shaucha – Cleanliness; refers to cleanliness on the physical as well as the mental level. The physical aspect, bahir shaucha– external purification – involves washing the body, and also keeping all other objects we use clean and neat. It also means that one would want to avoid those activities that would make the body impure, such as eating bad food, and poison it with substances such as alcohol and drugs. Antah Shaucha– internal purification – speaks of the purification of the mind by viewing everything and everyone with kindness and compassion, and practicing to seeing Brahman, the Higher Self in everything. From the practice of these twofold Shauchas one experiences as described in Sutra 2.40. “saucat svangajugupsa pariah asamsargah”– Cleanliness of body and mind develops disinterest in contact with others for self-gratification.Of course it also refers to cleanliness around us like keeping our yoga props and our environment clean.

This means that once being established in complete purity, it is no longer necessary to seek validation through external appearances. Rather than identifying with the body and using it as something to gain material success and approval, the body is now seen as the vehicle for our journey on the spiritual path and ought to be kept in good health as to provide a safe transportation on this path.

  • Santosha – Contentment describes the second Niyama and means to adopt an attitude of contentment and gratitude for present circumstances. One might find it easy to be content when life goes accordingly to one’s desires, but this Niyama is to be practiced under all circumstances. One can cultivate a sense of Santosha irrespective of outside circumstances. The result of such an attitude is simple yet magnificent: Sutra 2.42. “santosat anuttamah sukhalabhah”– From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness.
  • Tapas – Self-Discipline is a quality of utmost importance on the spiritual path. For example, when sleeping in seems easier to get up to do one’s sadhana– spiritual practice, one needs a lot of self-disciple to simply do the next right thing. One might encounter all kinds of temptations in day to day life, so self-discipline ought to become a part of everyday living. Sutra 2.43 describes “kaya indriya siddhih asuddhiksayat tapasah”– Self-discipline burns away impurities and kindles the spark of divinity.

This burning away of the impurities can be thought of the following way: generally, what motivates us to certain actions are specific mental conditionings, also called the vrttis. So for example, someone who is extremely shy might have the mental conditioning that he ought to stay in the background and not speak to others as his or her contributions to a conversation are not seen as important anyways. Now, let’s assume this person gets a job that involves public speaking, shaking hands with new business associates and making other people feel comfortable by taking the lead in conversations. This will be very difficult for someone who has believed the storyline in their head that they cannot do such a thing. Every time this person will now take the actions as required by this new position, they behave contrary to their mental conditioning. This contrast in the action and the vrtti creates friction and friction creates heat. This heat now slowly but surely burns away the mental conditioning and one day this person, who used to be so shy, will get up in front of a big group, tell a joke, make everyone feel comfortable and be able to truly inspire others, without his mind chattering away, that they are not capable of doing such a thing. Through self-discipline that person has freed themselves from the constraint of their own mind.

  • Svadhyaya – Self Study and study of the scriptures ought to become part of one’s sadhana as to gain ever greater awareness of one’s reactions to life, one’s motivations and thinking that influences one’s actions, through self-inquiry. Another part of Svadhyaya is the recital of Vedic verses, prayers and mantras as to unlock the qualities contained in the vibrations of these mantras. Specifically understood as the recital of prayers effect of Svadhyaya is described in Sutra 2.44. “svadhyayat istadevata samprayogah” – Self-study leads towards the realization of God or communion with one’s desired deity.
  • Isvarapranidhana– Surrender to a Higher Self  means to make everything one does an offering to the Higher Self or to God as one might understand God. This renunciation of all personal accomplishment and complete surrender of the ego is also a major theme in all other yogic scriptures. Ultimately, the spiritual path means a destruction of the ego and personal ambitions. The result is simple yet profound: Sutra 2.45. “samadhisiddhihi Isvarapranidhanat” – Surrender to God brings perfection in Samadhi.

Similar as with the Yamas, also the Niyamas form an interconnected web of actions, attitudes and conduct. The sadhaka (the one who practices), whose hope is to progress on the eight-fold path, ought to be firmly established in the practice of Yama and Niyama. At certain times obstacles may arise on the path and without a firm foundation to fall back on, it will be easy to let doubt, fear and discouragement divert one from progressing spiritually.

3) ASANA – Posture

Patanjali describes that the student who has made the principles of Yama and Niyama a part of his life in thought, word and deed is now prepared for the third limb, which is asana. Asana literally means seat, and describes actually one specific seated position; that for meditation. All other asanas we perform that stretch and strengthen certain muscles can be seen as preparation for being able to sit comfortably in meditation. In meditation the body assumes a pose with an erect spine and does not twitch and move for an extended period of time. Being able to remain in such a position is crucial for practicing the rest of the five limbs. It would be impossible, for example, to create a space of intense concentration and to completely draw the senses inwards (as required in the 5thand 6thlimb) if one were preoccupied with a straining lumbar spine or aching knees, for example.

  • Sutra 2.46. describes the asana as: “sthira sukham asanam” – Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.

This means that asanas are not meant to make one feel physically and mentally exhausted, and are not purely performed as physical exercise. For a body posture to become asana, one needs to not only be in physical control of the body, but also direct the entire attention of the mind to every aspect of the pose and experience the full effect of the asana on every level; thus feel the “spirit” in the asana.

  • Sutra 2.47.: “prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibyam” – Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.

Rather than the perfect physical shape, perfection in the asana is an internal experience. The asana ought to be effortless, meaning it does not matter, whether one was to stay in it for half an hour or 30 seconds. When one no longer needs to exert mental and physical effort to perform the asana one ‘reaches the infinite being within’, meaning that the specific effect the asana has will be revealed to the sadhaka. This then leads to the experience described in the next sutra:

  • 48. “Tatah dvandvah anabhighatah”– From then on the sadhaka is undisturbed by dualities.

The dualities refer to raga-dvesha; craving and aversion. Once one is established in the asana as described in the previous sutras, the suffering created by craving the pleasurable and avoiding the painful, no longer affects the student. One is in a place of complete neutrality. Once established in Asana, the sadhaka is prepared for the next limb.

4) PRANAYAMA – Regulation of Breath

The fourth limb describes the regulation of the breath. It is stressed that the body needs to be accurately prepared physically to begin practicing pranayama. As breathing involves all the muscles around the spinal column, these muscles need to be developed through all actions of the spine, such as extension, flexion, lateral flexion and extension and rotation. Also, as the practice of pranayama raises one’s prana level and prana flows through the nadis (see section 7.2.), also the nadis need to be strengthened and prepared for a stronger current of energy flowing through them. One can think of it like electric circuits that need to be strong enough to withstand the voltage flowing through them, otherwise the fuses would blow.

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is written that “Just as a lion, elephant or tiger may be gradually brought under control, so is prana attended to. Otherwise it destroys the practitioner” (ii: 5). Pranayama must be learned carefully under the guidance of an experienced teacher only.

Pranayama consists of the word prana– life force, and ayama– expansion, extension, and ascension; therefore, rather than merely thinking about controlling the breath, the practice of pranayama also aims at extending and expanding the breath and thus the prana that flows through us. The following Sutras refer to the practice of Pranayama:

  • Sutra 2.49.:Tasmin sati svasa prasvasayoh gativicchedah pranayamah” – Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is attained.
  • Sutra 2.50.:bahya abhyantara stambha vrttih desa kala samkhyabhih paridrstag dirgha suksmah” – Pranayama has three movements: prolonged and fine inhalation, exhalation and retention; all regulated within precision according to duration and place.
  • Sutra 2.51.:bahya abhyantara visaya aksepi caturthah” – The fourth type of pranayama transcends the external and internal pranayamas and appears effortless and non-deliberate.

This Sutra describes the actual state of Pranayama, which is achieved if the method in the previous Sutra has been perfected. Here the breath functions without volition and effort and simply moves naturally in its completely natural cycle. When this is the case then the mind and the consciousness become completely still. Then the sadhaka experiences what is described in the next Sutra:

  • Sutra 2.52:. “tatah ksiyate prakasa avaranam” – Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.

No longer occupied by the movements of the consciousness, one begins to grasp that there is much more knowledge and wisdom available to be attained than hitherto believed. By following the remaining four limbs one will experience what can at this point only be assumed.

5) PRATYAHARA – Turning the senses inward

With a steady mind one can now being to start turning the senses inward, taking them away from the external world. The practice of Pratyahara is described as follows:

  • Sutra 2.54.: “svavisaya asamprayoge cittasya svarupanukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah” – Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.
  • Sutra 2.55.: “tatah parama vasyata indriyanam” – Pratyahara results in the absolute control of the sense organs.

Controlling the sense organs means that one is no longer affected and distracted by what is perceived by the senses. It does not mean that one would turn away from the external world. Quite contrary, one is acutely aware of what is going on but does no longer need to react to it. This allows to also divorce actions from what is perceived and thus one is not blindly just acting upon impulses but can actually make free choices around how to act in certain situations.

6) DHARANA – Concentration

Sutra 3.1. “desa bandhah cittasya dharana” – Fixing the consciousness on one point or region is concentration (dharana).

Once the sadhaka is steady in practicing the five previous limbs, the 6thlimb, concentration, will come naturally. Dharana is the practice of focusing the mind onto one object, while this object can be external or internal. It is said that the concentration on something external, should be an object that is pure and auspicious, such as a deity for example, and the internal concentration should be directed towards the ‘inner self’, or ‘soul’. The practice of dharanavreduces the interruptions of the mind and will eventually eliminate them completely.  Dharana is the first of the limbs that is said to be part of the “internal” practice, whereas the first five are external.

7) DHYANA – Meditation

Once the student has reached a moment in his/her practice where the mind can be focused on one single point, she/he begins to enter into dhyana, meditation:

Sutra 3.2:.tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam” – A steady continuous flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is meditation (dhyana).

In deep meditation the student reaches a stage of steady and profound contemplative observance. The difference to dharana can be understood like ripples of water in a lake. In dharana the focus remains on a single wave rippling out and preventing the mind from getting distracted by all the qualities and movements of the water that exist at the same time. The attention remains one-pointed. In dhyana, however, the entire like is being taken in and experienced, awareness rests on everything, yet is invested in nothing and disturbed by nothing. The attention becomes ‘no-pointed’.

8) SAMADHI

Sutra 3.3. “tadeva arthamatranirbhasam svarupapasunyam iva samadhi” – When the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost. This is Samadhi.

Dhyana becomes Samadhi at that moment when the person meditating is no longer perceiving himself as separate as to what he is meditating on. From one-pointed awareness of a single water drop, to the no-pointed awareness of the entire lake, there is no separation anymore between the lake and that perceiving the lake. The lake is analogous to consciousness; in dharana unbroken attention rests on one thought-wave, in dhyana the thought-wave is seen against its backdrop of the entire consciousness, and in samadhi one is simply a part of this consciousness, no longer aware that there is something that perceives it. The object that is seen becomes one with ‘the seer’. This also mean the ego, the experiencing “I” is completely surrendered and we no longer see ourselves as separate from others. This is Yoga; union, oneness.

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